Wonderful Engineering

New Digital Materials Allow Robots To Build Themselves

All of the living things are comprised of twenty amino acids in different combinations. So, why can’t we do the same with machines and robots? This is the inspiration that led to a unique fabrication technique from MIT that makes use of a few multi-use parts for creating all kinds of small machines. This includes machines that could eventually be able to build themselves – the concept is being called digital materials.

MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld is behind the concept of digital materials. Digital materials are a discrete, limited set of parts that can be fused together into a virtually limitless variation of small robots and machines, much like the small Erector-set. Neil Gershenfeld’s paper on digital materials that has been co-authored by MIT graduate student, Will Langford, has already been presented at the International Conference on Manipulation, Automation, and Robotics at Small Scales (MARSS) in Helsinki, Finland.

At this conference, the team also carried out a demonstration of the assembly and deployment of a small walking motor and another contraption that was able to turn the gears of a machine by using only five distinct part designs. These five-part designs included flexible and rigid components, a coil, and magnetics. They were in millimeter-scale and connected to one another using a standard connector in different variations. They can be assembled into a robot for carrying out a particular task, or they can be disassembled and then repurposed into a machine for a different purpose.

The most challenging aspect of this concept of digital materials was of coming up with a way of making these multipurpose components and assembling them in the first place. As per Gershenfeld, the final aim is to create an assembler that is capable of assembling a copy of itself using the parts that it is assembling. Furthermore, these digital materials can be scaled up or scaled down depending upon the task at hand. The team has already created nano-robots using nano-sized parts, and mega-robots using meter-sized parts.

What do you think of this amazing development?